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When discussing the American Civil War, there is often one aspect of the war that goes unaddressed and is sometimes forgotten about all together. Many know of the land campaigns carried out by the Union and Confederate armies along with the Union Naval blockades; however few look to the skies for the third. The mid-19th century would be a time of tremendous change and great advancement in the field of aeronautics and ballooning. Although ballooning was first successfully experimented with in the latter half of the 18th century in France, there was little progression in the nearly eighty years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Thaddeus S.C. Lowe would be the man tobring aerial reconnaissance to the battlefield for the first time in American Military history, forming the Union Army Balloon Corps. Lowe would use his experience of ballooning, gained from his experimentation, coupled with the newly created telegraph machine, to give the Union Army a substantial advantage against the Confederate Army.
A Brief History of Ballooning
To better appreciate ballooning and how it would come to be used by Thaddeus Lowe in the Civil War, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the history of ballooning. The desire for man to imitate birds and their ability to fly can be traced back to ancient times, however many of these early designs and even the Wright brothers in the early 20th century all base their idea of flight on a winged model. This is one aspect of ballooning that makes it unique, the idea of lighter than air flight is considered to be a counter intuitive idea, and nowhere in nature does an example of this exist. The idea for lighter than air flight first came from two brothers in France, Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier in 1783 after watching the embers of a fire float up into the sky. On June 15, 1783 the brothers constructed a paper bag 33 feet in diameter and placed it over a fueled fire; once the bag was deemed adequately filled it was released and rose 1000 feet into the sky and the balloon was born.
The next great advancement would come from Etienne Montgolfier and the success of the first untethered manned flight on November 21, 1783. A young physicist Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and a French infantry major were the first men in history to accomplish a free flight balloon ascent. These manned flights would spark balloon fever all across Europe eventually making its way to America. America’s first balloon would be constructed by a Maryland tavern owner by the name of Peter Carnes. Carnes would step away from ballooning after a near fatal accident but the infatuation with lighter than air flight would continue. Until the birth of John Wise in 1808 few advancements in ballooning would be made, it would be Wise that would study aeronautics for scientific reasons rather than for profit. Wise would go on to study weather patterns, air pressure, and currents and write a book on how to construct, inflate and sail a balloon.
The Man Behind the Balloon Corps: Thaddeus Lowe
John Wise is viewed as the father of 19th century ballooning and it would be his findings and publications that would attract and inspire young aeronauts like Thaddeus Lowe. Lowe was born on August 20, 1832, the son of a grocer in the small village of Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire. Lowe first came in contact with ballooning when he was 12, all from a newspaper story telling the tail of the English balloon crew that had set off to fly across the Atlantic in 3 days. Interestingly enough, the story was entirely made up by a man desperate for money, Edgar Allen Poe. However, it would not be until John Wise’s proposal in 1845 to use balloons in the Mexican war to float overhead the enemy and drop explosives, that Lowe would become fascinated with the field of aeronautics. Through borrowed books Lowe found military use of balloons was not an original idea of Wise’s, in fact it had be used 50 years earlier by Napoleon. At the young age of 13, Lowe was already giving serious thought to uses of balloons in a military setting.
Lowe moved to Boston at the age of 15, he was sent to live with his older brother and to apprentice as a shoemaker alongside his brother. It would be there in Boston where Lowe would conduct his first experiment with flight. He and a friend made a cage for the store cat and attached it to a kite sending the cat hundreds of feet into the air and back down to a safe landing. After two years in Boston Lowe returned home, while home he took in a magic show with his younger brother. Lowe volunteered to help the magician, Professor Dincklehoff, and the Professor was so impressed with Lowe’s knowledge and interest in science he asked Lowe to join him on the rest of his tour as an assistant. After two years of touring, Dincklehoff had decided to retire, and Lowe would take over title of Professor and the show. After two years Lowe had become more and more popular and managed to gain an enormous amount of money as well as knowledge from all his experiments all by the age of 22.
Lowe followed John Wise’s book A System of Aeronautics and built his first balloon in April 1857with the help of his new bride. Lowe would take his first flight in the same month resulting in an appetite for bigger and better experiments. In 1860, Lowe set out to make a trip across the Atlantic Ocean, a dream of many airmen of the day. However, after numerous failures and a string of bad luck, the trip was delayed nearly a year, in that time Lowe took a smaller balloon to prove his theory of sailing high enough to catch the eastward prevailing current. In April of 1861, Lowe made the journey from Cincinnati Ohio to Uniondale North Carolina, a 1000 mile trip in nine hours. Lowe’s only opportunity to get back to Cincinnati was to go through Louisville Kentucky due to troop movement and military preparations in the north. In his trip back he saw firsthand what the Union would be facing, “a feeling of patriotism had now transcended his private ambitions to span the Atlantic by air.” Lowe would make a few more ascents to raise funds for a demonstration for Washington to get himself into the military for a balloon reconnaissance branch.
The Union Army Balloon Corps
After a month of pulling strings, Lowe’s good friend and advisor Professor Joseph Henry had gained the support of the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase. Secretary Chase would in turn speak with the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron who agreed to Lowe’s proposal of a demonstration. Lowe’s demonstrations started on June 10, 1861 and resulted in a huge success; President Lincoln was fully onboard after Lowe made a demonstration directly across from the White House where Lincoln observed from a second floor window. Lowe sent the President a telegram from high above Washington, D.C, 1,000 feet in the air, Lincoln was so impressed he invited Lowe to spend the night in the White House. After the last day of demonstrations, General McDowell saw an opportunity to put Lowe’s skill and new use of the telegram to use and made arrangements for Lowe to make an ascent at Falls Church, Virginia marking the beginning of Lowe’s military ballooning career. Lowe was assigned 30 men from the 8th New York Infantry to assist him in his ascent,although Lowe’s services were still in a probationary stage.
This was not General McDowell’s first attempt in utilizing aeronauts on the battlefield, before Lowe there was a young aeronaut James Allen. Allen had attempted to gather intelligence at Harpers Ferry; however, due to an inability to produce enough gas to fill the balloon, Allen never left the ground and the armory was overrun by confederate forces. A second attempt was made to aid McDowell at Manassas; however, delays in filling the balloon and weather forced Allen to make another unsuccessful flight. His supervisor General Abbot felt the balloon was rather disappointing and it could not be depended on in the field. After an attempt to inflate his balloon in a nearby city and have it then transported to the field had resulted in the destruction of his balloon, James Allen admitted defeat and returned home. Allan concluded, “Balloons could not be introduced into U.S. service without an entire different arrangement”.
James Allen’s short comings and Lowe’s ingenuity of incorporating the telegraph with the balloon allowed him to prove just how effective the use of a balloon could be. Lowe and his prized balloon the Enterprise confirmed the effectiveness of the balloon on the battlefield at Falls Church. The Enterprise, “was kept in constant use for two days” making several ascents providing the perfect perch for Union commanders to sketch maps of the surrounding area and most importantly, it allowed them to discover a Rebel encampment at the Fairfax Court House. Lowe’s June 23 ascension made an impression on many Union commanders, changing their perception of ballooning from a county fair attraction to a valuable military asset. Despite his success, Lowe would still have to compete will fellow aeronauts John Wise and John La Mountain to achieve his vision of starting a new branch of military service. Although Wise would be contracted to build the balloons for the government and La Mountain would be called upon by General Ben Butler, Lowe never felt they were any real threat to achieving his dream. The battle of Bull Run solidified Lincoln’s belief that if General McDowell had had proper intelligence, Union loses would have been far less severe. In a second meeting with Lincoln, Lowe talked with the president informing him of his desire to provide such information, however, he was having trouble making his way through the bureaucratic process, specifically securing a meeting with General Winfield Scott. Even after several letters of recommendation by Lincoln, General Scott refused to meet with Lowe. After informing Lincoln that General Scott still would not see him Lowe says, “He looked at me for a moment, laughed, arose and seizing his tall silk hat bade me ‘come on.’ He proposed to find out what was the matter with Scott”. The two men entered General Scott’s office and Lincoln said, “General, this is my friend Professor Lowe, who is organizing an Aeronautics Corps for the Army, and is to be its Chief. I wish you would facilitate his work in every way…”. With a few simple exchanges between Lincoln and General Scott, the Union Army Balloon Corps was officially born, and Thaddeus Lowe was to be its primary care taker.
After a month of inactivity, Lowe would spend most of August on the construction of his newest balloon, the Union. Captain Whipple, a firm supporter of the Balloon Corps sent a letter to newly appointed General McClellan asking for a detail of troops to assist Lowe. McClellan, an avid supporter of combining technological advances with military strategy happily assigned 30 men. Lowe started out locally around Arlington, ascending in Falls Church, Fort Corcoran, and Ball’s Crossroads in the beginning. He would make numerous ascensions at Fort Corcoran and Ball’s Crossroads where he was kept in constant use for several days, only pulling away from the front line to recharge his balloon from the city gas supply in Washington. A high point would come on September 7 when General McClellan himself made ascension with Lowe, solidifying McClellan’s support for the Balloon Corps. Lowe’s constant stream of telegraphs provided detailed information of any change in position or numbers would gain him notice from many of McClellan’s staff, with ever ascension made Lowe gained more support. Lowe made a request for construction of two more balloons and a portable hydrogen generator, not only was his request approved, but McClellan himself ordered an additional two balloons be built. Lowe would now have under his command 5 balloons, far beyond what he had envisioned. In the few remaining months of 1861, Lowe would continue to make routine ascensions at Upton’s Hill, Ball’s Bluff and Chain Bridge, all still location in a relatively local radius to Arlington.
Up until the spring of 1862 Lowe had yet totake part in any major battle, he was still attempting to get the attention of the U.S. government as the first Manassas and the Battle of Bull Run took place. It would not be until McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign that Lowe would get his first opportunity to provide intelligence for a major battle. Lowe final got his chance on the morning of April 6, 1862;he made his first ascension on the out skirts of Yorktown, Virginia as part of a major campaign. The Balloon Corps’ primary mission would be observation, relaying information of enemy troop movement and activity to army headquarters. Additionally, they would direct artillery fire, create maps and sketches of the surrounding areas and they were always to be vigilant to serve as the first line defense in a surprise attack. McClellan had received estimates from scouts that the confederate forces numbered 100,000 men, a gross overestimate as Lowe would soon find out and relay to McClellan. Lowe was then ordered to return to Fort Monroe; from there he would be bounced around the James River Peninsular. The Balloon Corps would be station with General Porter outside of Yorktown and at Warwick Court House with General Keys. Lowe and his aeronauts would continue to take their commanding officers up to make daily observations and eventually McClellan would send numerous members of his staff to make ascensions to get a bird’s eye view of what they would be facing. Many were hesitant of going up in the balloon, some for sake of fears others felt it was a circus act that had no place in the military. Interestingly enough one of the Balloon Corps most hesitant passengers, was Lieutenant George Custer, a man who would participate in nearly every battle the Army of the Potomac fought was less than eager to take flight. The Balloon Corps’ work at Yorktown and surrounding areas allowed McClellan to advance his troops, however since the aerial observations could still not provide certainties regarding troop installations and numbers; McClellan chose to move ahead with extreme caution. Lowe witnessed the battle of Yorktown all from a safe distance in the sky, relaying information to the ground making note of confederate numbers on the ground, position movements and he would confirm the confederate retreat for McClellan, allowing the Union troops to move ahead and claim the city. A series of stops would be made by Lowe over the next month;Williamsburg would be the first of those stops. However after the first day in was clear Lowe could provide no substantial aid due to the heavy forest each army hid in. Lowe then advanced up the York River to West Point, Virginia to serve as an advanced guard for the Union Army’s new position. Lowe’s landing and occupation at West Point would be the riskiest situation he would face in the entire Peninsular Campaign. He was to set up headquarters at the White House mansion with only 150 troops with him and no heavy firepower for support. Lowe realizing his vulnerability took command, he ordered his men to set up all the tents they had, build as many fires as material allowed and even disguised his cargo barge as a gunboat. Lowe survived the night and would be joined my General Stoneman’s Calvary the next morning, the two men would take flight from Gaines Farm with Richmond insight, a mere 15 miles away. Several enemy positions were spotted in a second flight allowing General Stoneman to place men accordingly, forcing the retreat of any remaining rebels and he then directed artillerypermitting the batteries to hit hidden targets. General Stoneman advanced on to Mechanicsville as Lowe watched over him to report any confederate forces marching in their direction. From Mechanicsville, Lowe would watch the Confederate forces grow in numbers and the Union forces crumb at the Battlesof Fair Oaks and Seven Pines. He rushed between the two balloon camps at and Gaines Farm and Mechanicsville to relay the best intelligence back to McClellan, however the battle would continue to rage. Lowe did not have a telegraph machine with him while observing at Mechanicsville and once he had reached McClellan with the intelligence torrential rains prevented any reinforcements from reaching the two stranded Corps. The Balloon Corps’ aeronauts would continue to make numerous flights a day, ascending and descending sending detailed telegraphs of the confederate’s troop and artillery movement. Although this would mark the end of forward movement in the Peninsular Campaign, the intelligence gained by the Balloon Corps allowed the Union Army to hold its ground along the Chickahominy. In the weeks leading up to the Seven Days Battle Lowe would make daily observations noting a large confederate build and a loss of Federal momentum. On June 26, 1862, Lowe would be the first to report Lee’s army moving across the Chickahominy and engaging troops at Mechanicsville. Throughout the course of the Seven Days Battle, Lowe would retreat alongside the Army of the Potomac providing them with whatever intelligence he could, unfortunately no intelligence could change the Confederate’s momentum.By early August 1862 Lincoln called the Army of the Potomac back to Washington and sent the Balloon Corps to their headquarters at the Columbia Armory. Once General Pope replaced General McClellan, Lowe and the Balloon Corps’ activity would decline drastically. Lowe fell ill in the winter of 1862 and was forced to stay in Washington, by the time he became able again, Pope had lost the second battle at Bull Run and was replaced by McClellan, and McClellan had forced the Confederates to retreat at Antietam. McClellan, the Balloon Corps major supporter was removed from command once and for all in November 1862, taking with him and any hope of legitimacy for Lowe and the Balloon Corps. The aeronauts would not see any major action again until the battle of Fredericksburg. However, General Burnside would choose not to deploy the balloons until the fighting was already underway, rendering the balloons all but useless at that point, only allowing Lowe to watch the carnage unfold in front of him. General Burnside’s underestimation of Lee’s forces andultimate defeat could have been averted with the use of the Balloon Corps prior to the battle. Fredericksburg would be the final major battle of the Civil War Lowe participated in, yet no significant observations would come of his flights.
Thaddeus Lowe left the Balloon Corps in May of 1863, although the Balloon Corps would remain loosely intact until that summer, it would not be nearly as successful as when Lowe was chief aeronaut. After Lowe left, the fate of the Balloon Corps was all but sealed, the equipment began to fail, the balloons in desperate need of maintenance and no one was left to prove the value of aerial observation. There is no denying the enormous tactical advantage of aerial observation the Balloon Corps providethe Union Army with when properly used.The intelligence aeronauts of the Balloon Corps gathered had the potential to end the Civil War years earlier. They had the ability to direct artillery to strike unseen targets, observe troop movement spoiling surprise attacks, and provide accurate estimates of enemy strength eliminating guess work for those in command. In addition to military strategy, Lowe was able to view the war from a unique vantage point, allowing him to take incredible notes of those battles he observed. Rather than have a detailed record of one aspect of a battle, Lowe was able to watch it all fold out in front of him providing invaluable primary sources of the Civil War. Thaddeus Lowe is deemed the father of the U.S Air Force by many,although he was not the first to use balloons in a military setting, hewas the first to established the bond between technological advances and military strategy that is still with the United States and many other nations around the world today.
1. Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft: Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.
2. Dept, United States War, Robert Nicholson Scott, Henry Martyn Lazelle, George Breckenridge Davis, Leslie J. Perry, Joseph William Kirkley, Fred Crayton Ainsworth, and John Sheldon Moodey. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1900.
3. Evans, Charles M. The War of the Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning during the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002.
4. Haydon, Frederick Stansbury, and Tom D Crouch. Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
5. Lowe, T. S. C, and Michael, Lauritzen, Carol Jaeger. Memoirs of Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, Chief of the Aeronautic Corps of the Army of the United States during the Civil War: My Balloons in Peace and War. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.
6. Poleskie, Steve. The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe-- Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force. Savannah, GA: Frederic C. Beil, 2007.
7. Ross, Charles D. Trial by Fire: Science, Technology, and the Civil War. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Books, 2000.
 Charles M Evans, The War of the Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning during the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), 21
 Ibid., 23.
 Steve Poleskie, The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe-- Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force (Savannah, GA: Frederic C. Beil, 2007), 10.
 Ibid., 26.
 Ibid., 33.
 Frederick Stansbury Haydon and Tom D Crouch, Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 163.
 Ibid., 167.
 United States War Dept et al., The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1900), Vol. 3, ser. 3, 301.
 Evans, The War of the Aeronauts, 75.
 T. S. C Lowe and Michael, Lauritzen, Carol Jaeger, Memoirs of Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, Chief of the Aeronautic Corps of the Army of the United States during the Civil War: My Balloons in Peace and War (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), 65.
 Ibid., 66.
 Evans, The War of the Aeronauts, 108.
 Ibid., 116–117.
 Ibid., 179.
 Haydon and Crouch, Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War, 308.
 Evans, The War of the Aeronauts, 180.
 Ibid., 185.
 Lowe and Jaeger, Memoirs of Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, Chief of the Aeronautic Corps of the Army of the United States during the Civil War, 122.
 Evans, The War of the Aeronauts, 238.
 Ibid., 250.
 Ibid., 252.
 Lowe and Jaeger, Memoirs of Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, Chief of the Aeronautic Corps of the Army of the United States during the Civil War, 188.